Friday, May 30, 2008

Invention is not Innovation


I was reading an article in New Yorker by Macolm Gladwell. I will read anything he writes, by the way. He is talking about how key scientific discoveries seem to be uncovered my multiple people simultaneously. He seems to have the facts to back up his premise:


Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland. “There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,”

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.

It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.” For that matter, the Pythagorean theorem was known before Pythagoras; Gaussian distributions were not discovered by Gauss. The examples were so legion that Stigler declared the existence of Stigler’s Law: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.”



We all know the sad tale of Elisha Gray, who submitted his patent for the telephone mere hours after Alexander Bell did.

Malcolm's point is that invention multiples are so common that many inventions are almost inevitable. True or not, my belief is that innovation is not inventing things. Innovation is doing something with the ideas. Making them useful. Commercializing them. Something we know a little about in VentureLab.

1 comment:

Alan said...

That WAS a great article. Thanks for the pointer. Inspiring too... Maybe next Thanksgiving, instead of collapsing in front of the TV with my extended family to watch football, I should start an invention brainstorm session. (I never have been a fan of the Dallas Cowboys anyways.) Can any collection of random people bouncing ideas around generate the next 'genius' invention? ... like maybe a TV remote override...hmmm...